on 31 January 2001
Anybody interested in the work of Lawrence Durrell should read this book. It is not Durrell at his best, nevertheless it is a good read and will give you an opportunity to appreciate the country, in which Durrell spent greater part of his life. Landscape and local colour have been important for Durrell right from the start so the homage to Provence is only a logical conclusion of the career of a writer who has been obssessed by the Provencal culture. Sometimes one may regret that this homage came so late in life when the author experienced all the problems of the old age and his writing lost some of its imaginative qualities it showed in the previous books devoted to particular places (Bitter Lemons) but on the other hand this is vastly compensated by a very intimate knowledge of the place. Therefore if you like Durrell, don't hesitate and read this
"... the circle of the old is closing in ..."
The quote is from the first of several poems that interweave this golden tapestry of late Provencal light. Subtitled `Aspects of Provence', this is one of Durrell's last works before his death in 1990: "Constrained by history, now he shall not make | New friendships or attachments | For the circle of the old is closing in ..."
I came to this book from an odd angle, not from that of a litterateur but as a first-time visitor to Avignon and the Gardois, and who sought something interesting to read at the end of a hot summer's day as I sipped my nectar de fraise gariguette, or something to wake to in the brightness of a Uzenais morning. Though quirky, this book provided much interest and I am glad that I read it. As well as Provence as administratively understood by the French state, it often crosses the Rhone into the eastern edge of Languedoc, visiting Nimes and the Pont-du-Gard amongst other magical places. It is a book of musings about Durrell's last resting place, Provence, and the impulse to write it came whilst drinking wine: "And this is how we came by the idea of a book - a book which would not only enshrine our most memorable thoughts [on Provence] but also help us cut down on the calamitous intake of scarlet Fitou ... in vain."
But what about a suitable title for the book? Durrell writes, "In the first euphoria of this therapeutic project `A Complete Provence' had a certain sweeping insolence which I found commendable." But this would require at least a dozen volumes. How about using "... more impressionistic terms of reference, a system of poetical collage, say? To capture the poetic quiddity [a favourite Durrell word] of this extraordinary cradle of romantic dissent without sentimentalizing it - for its romantic heart shelters a gorgeous brutality and extremism!" That brutality and extremism, as well as an inherent paganism, Durrell argues, is simmering only just below the surface of the rich Provencal soil. The actual title, though, arises because "in this domain the name that swims up out of the ground is always that of Caesar ... and one can do nothing as pleasant as to follow his history - his Provencal history ..."
In the first chapter, Durrell introduces the reader to the modern Provence, its disappointments but its persistent triumphs too. In subsequent chapters, he compares it with the rest of France and with England. He claims that there is no part of France that has kept its individuality so much (but a Breton might beg to disagree), later arguing that "Provence is about as French as Wales is English - in other words, not at all!" That's as may be. Nevertheless, who can oppose the view that "the pleasure and enrichment for an artist living in France is the feeling that the whole population is subtly engaged in the same debate with itself - namely, how to turn living into something more than just existing"?
Durrell moves on to examine the Greek and Roman influences on its cultural landscape, and of later invaders and passers-through too: "The country has remained a crucible of dissent and a prey to conquest from all sides". A personal view of the city of Arles is accompanied by meditations on the deforestation of the Rhone valley (thus giving aid and succour to the vicious mistral) and the seaport in the Rhone delta: "All the secret histories make it clear | Caesar was once happy here."
Durrell being Durrell, we also hear hints of his deeper personal meditations on sexuality and religion, his dismay "with monotheism and the old comfortable Roman world of nymphs and gods. ... Where the Roman took his happiness and fulfilment from the past, the early Christian looked forward fervently to a nebulous notion of a future ..." A whole chapter is devoted to the medieval courtly love of the troubadour and the influence of Muslim Spain. Alas, Durrell's final chapter lives up to his own statement that, "Putting words down on paper in a specific order results in a merciless lampoon of reality." Perhaps, Durrell suffered finally from too much sun - or too much wine, for there were only three paragraphs worth reading to their end in this chapter.
Whilst I found many of his poems uninspiring, this review will hopefully have highlighted some examples of Durrell's fine style of prose writing, of which this book possesses further fine examples aplenty, such as "Here, like the signature at the end of a score, the steady orchestral drizzle of cicadas"; or take his depiction of a bull's final moment in the ring, "Lurching, subsiding, ... demolished like old cathedrals picked to pieces by earthquakes, sinking into the ground like great black concert-grands sinking into a lake of blood and darkness."
There are factual errors in the text. For example, Julius Caesar is described as in action in AD65 when he died in 44BC, and this is the first time I had read of Agrippa's supposed link with the Pont du Gard: Durrell is a hundred years too early.
Alas there are no photographs, and no map to accompany the text, but one can argue that Durrell's guide is really into the heart and soul, not the ruinous cities and dusty hills: "But let us leave history to the histories ... This account is necessarily partial and particular ... it is an attempt to deal with echoes and atmospheres."
The notes and sources listed at the end comprise the classic authors of Roman literature; the remainder form a notably short list of mostly nineteenth-century books. An index ends the volume, returning Caesar's ghost to its shady Provencal night.